I spent the better part of a quarter century dealing with dictators and strongmen. I actively fought against one and still wish I could have done the same against another. In both cases intelligence officers, diplomats, world leaders, psychologists, and pundits all assessed their mental states from afar. Kim Jung Il, wearing Charles Nelson Reilly glasses straight from 1970s gameshows, was the crazy son of a communist deity. He was always thought to be striving for his immortal father’s love and was therefore continuously underestimated. Saddam Hussein was an irrational and homicidal maniac bent on nuclear superiority over his neighbors. He was infamously overestimated. Common thought simultaneously held the ideas that both men were detached from reality yet ultimately guilty of all we believed they desired. What other than irrationality could possibly explain their behavior? Perhaps the lessons of dealing with these strongmen can help us understand the actions of the one currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Saddam Hussein spent half of my career trying to convince the world that he was developing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD). According to George Tenet, then head of the CIA, he led “…an active effort to deceive U.N. inspectors and deny them access.” He did so for sites he had previously allowed inspectors to investigate. He manufactured evidence of deception. He harassed inspectors. Finally, in 1998, he kicked them out of Iraq for the last time, a sure sign that his weapons program was on track and an enormous threat to the entire world. It wasn’t. It did not then exist.
Now we have a president who fired the FBI Director because of the “Russia thing.” He says he may fire the man now investigating the same. He is actively undermining his own Attorney General, the elf-like man first to prostrate himself before a then vile and unlikely candidate, for not protecting him from this alleged “witch hunt.” He is calling into question the service of the man he appointed deputy director of the FBI. He may pardon himself—though he claims complete innocence—because “everyone knows” he can. His lawyers are digging up dirt to tarnish the reputations and call into question the motives of the team the special prosecutor has assembled when the timing is right (this is the same man who claimed his opponent smeared the reputations of those accusing her husband of extramarital adventures). He uses Twitter to parry real issues and bully his own staff. Lately he has taken to privately calling and berating long-serving and generally respected senators and congressmen and women from his own party for not protecting him from the investigation into why Russia so wanted Donald Trump in the White House. Why would anyone say and do those things if they were not guilty of some high crime or misdemeanor? Why would anyone who has nothing to hide engage in such a way that nearly screams of a guilty conscience?
Saddam did what he did to play to an internal and limited external audience, by which I mean his own people and the microcosm of his Arab and Persian neighbors. He was projecting the only kind of strength a very weak man can. As with all weak leaders there is a bluster that accompanies overinflating every perceived sleight and overdoing every response. Saddam had to appear strong to the disparate peoples he ruled, all with centuries of mutual animosity lightly dusted over and just barely beneath the surface. He also had to appear as an equal to his Persian neighbor to the East with whom he’d fought a bloody, protracted war as part of his rise to power. He had to play the part of the representative Arab being persecuted by a West that was Zionist at its heart, all while appearing strong to the leader of the only cohort of fellow Arabs who had taken up arms against him. The twelve-year pantomime over WMD that followed Operation Desert Storm and ended with Operation Iraqi Freedom played perfectly to those three audiences. It was high drama projected by a rational actor.
President Trump also must play to an internal and limited external audience, both to his core supporters and to the microcosm of allegedly conservative voters who somehow found the dissonance required to vote for him despite what they claimed to value. The 20% of Americans who vehemently support him need to see his so-called anti-political correctness on full display. They are the kind that still show up to campaign rallies and would not change even if the president, as he famously claimed, shot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue. Still, they have to see him defy the norms of public office. They would not mind if he defied a law here and there because he would be sticking it to the Washington and East Coast Elites who are out of touch with “real” America—a remarkably elitist concept in its own right and one we cannot allow to stand unchallenged. He must continue to play to their centuries-old animosities, lightly dusted over and clearly no longer beneath the surface, that remain unenlightened by the progress the nation has made since its Founding, its near cleaving, and its more recent struggle for civil rights.
The president also must appear strong to the further 26% of voting Americans who cast a ballot for him but are moderately concerned about his Twitter habits and the effect they have had on an agenda they thought they voted for—one he never supported in whole and to which, they are now learning, he is in no way tethered. They, however, are so relieved at not having another Clinton in the White House that they are willing to overlook all the issues they said they despised about that possibility. Nepotism. Self-dealing. Foreign governments buying influence. Political corruption. Getting rich from government service. Dynasty. Russian contacts (yes, really). Leaking classified information for the benefit of adversary governments. Consorting with terrorists. And of course, incriminating emails.
The president must continually remind this fraction of the electorate that the “Russia thing” is keeping him from executing whatever singular policy drove them to vote for an old man with a declared sense of entitlement to manhandle women’s genitalia. He must continue to claim he is being repressed by “fake news,” an obstructionist left, and anyone getting in his way of making America great again. This sliver of the citizenry must know that he would be fighting for them if not for these pesky issues of campaign law and his advisors’ deep involvement in Russian state affairs. There is, of course, absolutely no evidence of intent to do the things he promised for this faction in any policy statement or official act to date, save a Supreme Court justice. That is, unless you also believe the killing of a terrorist by a transgender soldier is somehow less righteous than if done by someone with genetically bestowed private parts.
Finally, he must continue to remain aggressive about condemning the investigation into his alleged Russia ties, because to acquiesce and allow it to play out would show weakness in the face of the world leaders from whom he most desires respect—autocrats, dictators, tyrants, and goons. Despite western leaders’ lack of confidence and occasional open disdain for his actions, the West can no more leave the orbit of the U.S. than can the U.S. shake off its long and productive partnerships among the world’s liberal order. Relations will strain, the U.S.’s standing in that order has already been damaged and will fall much farther, but in the end the ties will bind. The president lacks both the background and intellectual curiosity to know or learn this, but he so wants to be respected by those “better leader(s) of their” countries than any previous president has been of ours. To be respected by a theocratic king, a KGB officer cum dictator, or a Philippine mobster is so much more personally satisfying for this president than to be known for his respect for human dignity, the Constitution to which he swore an oath, the rule of law itself, or even the people who put him in office. That is partially because he has no respect for the latter four at all. Remember, he is a man—a gameshow personality—who has spent a lifetime trying to live up to the hard reputation of a dead father. A father who could never show his approval grips a man from the grave in a way that should never be underestimated. That man may never have claimed to be a god but he certainly held that kind of aura for the son who inherited his sizable fortune.
Whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia is an important issue for the nation. The facts are certainly in doubt. That the campaign was more than willing to engage in such collusion no longer is. The president has the emails of his son to thank for that. It would be a sweet irony were it not so sick. Of course, it is still far more likely than not that the campaign, the Trump Organization, and maybe Donald Trump himself colluded with, have unseemly ties to, or are perhaps somehow so indebted to Russian interests that it presents a grave risk to the nation. It is still far more likely than not that individuals in Trump’s orbit knew of and actively encouraged Russian interference in the sanctity of the U.S. election process. But then it was far more likely that Saddam Hussein had a viable WMD program and Kim Jung Il did not.
Saddam’s duping about his weapons programs did not instill confidence in him as a leader of any substance. Neither does the president’s obfuscation and confrontation over his Russia ties. Such are the machinations of a deep and unshakable weakness of being. But they may be evidence of nothing else. In politics and high-stakes international brinksmanship, sometimes there is only smoke. Its source is an apparition, a façade against which frailty is cast as strength and then thrives far longer than it should. Unfortunately, that is the best we can hope for in the president’s obsession with claiming his innocence while acting as though he may have treason to hide.